by Anne O'Brien
Anyone of an historical turn of mind visiting Warwick will automatically make Warwick Castle their first port of call. It is without doubt a marvelous site. But for me, the Lord Leycester Hospital should take priority as a unique historical and architectural gem.
The name hospital is used in its ancient sense of 'a charitable institution for the housing and maintenance of the needy, infirm or aged.' It was established by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in 1571, as a retirement home for old soldiers disabled in the service of Elizabeth I. It takes the name Leycester from the original spelling of Leicester's name in his will.
But the building has a continuous, well-documented history from a much earlier date. The original chapel of St James the Great was built in 1123 over the West gate into Warwick, but most of what we see today is from the fifteenth century when the United Guilds of Warwick moved to the site and the whole was rebuilt under the patronage of the Earls of Warwick. After Leicester's death without a direct heir, it became the property of Sir Philip Sidney, the celebrated poet and soldier. His descendants have been patrons of the Hospital until the present day.
The true miracle is that this building has survived at all. When the Great Fire of Warwick swept through the town in 1694, it wrought havoc with the medieval timber framed buildings. Today it is easy to follow its route. The buildings approaching the Hospital along High Street are constructed in stone and brick, showing the path of destruction of the fire driven by a strong southwesterly wind. Miraculously the fire stopped just before it reached the Hospital.
Today the The Lord Leycester's Hospital is open to visitors and is a delight, a visual feast, but there are some aspects that particularly draw the eye and the imagination. There is no electric lighting in the beautiful chapel. Every weekday morning (except Mondays) the Brethren who still live in the Hospital gather there for prayers in exactly the same wording as laid down by Robert Dudley in 1571. Such a breath of history! Because there was some renovation in the 19th Century, there is also a lovely window by the pre-Raphaelite artist, William Morris, who also designed the altar hangings.
The Great Hall is superb, dating from 1383. Particularly fine is the beamed roof. What a superb place to hold a wedding reception, a concert or a dance. Any opportunity to spend time in this room with such a sense of history would be perfect ...
The Guildhall was for me the star of the show, built in 1450 by Richard Neville, the 'Kingmaker' Earl of Warwick, as a private chamber for the Guilds to meet and carry out business. There are mementos here of the visit of James I to the room, but it is the Warwick connection that is so strong. The structure of the room is magnificent, and so is the original table around which the Guild members sat. And you can actually sit at it and touch it ...
Entering the Courtyard is striking. The gallery that faces the doorway is decorated with shields depicting the devices of families associated with the Hospital over the past 450 years, including of course the bear and ragged staff. It is an opportunity simply to stand and stare.
And then if sustenance is needed, a visit to the Brethren's Kitchen is a must. This is where the Brethren ate together until 1966 when the Hospital was provided with self-contained flats. Now it caters for the exhausted visitor. The oak cupboard from Kenilworth is said to have once belonged to Elizabeth I, and there is a framed piece of embroidery by Amy Robsart, the first ill-fated wife of Robert Dudley, to admire as you drink a cup of tea.
What a splendid place it is. What a sad loss it would have been if the 1694 Fire had continued to sweep through Warwick. Whatever you do in Warwick, make time for The Lord Leycester's Hospital. I defy you to be disappointed!
Anne O'Brien is the author of The Virgin Widow, Queen Defiant, The King's Concubine and The Forbidden Queen.